Lucinda Franks Dies at 74; Prize-Winning Journalist Broke Molds

She avoided covering beauty pageants by going to Northern Ireland on her own and was later the first woman to win a Pulitzer for national reporting.,

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Lucinda Franks, a widely published writer and investigative journalist who was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, died on Wednesday in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. She was 74.

Her family said the cause was cancer. She lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side but spent her final months in Hopewell Junction, in the Hudson Valley, at the home that the family of her husband, the longtime Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, has owned for generations. He died in 2019 at 99.

A tough and scrappy reporter with an eye for the hot story, Ms. Franks began her journalism career with United Press International, where she won her Pulitzer in 1971. She was a staff writer for The New York Times from 1974 to 1977 and for The New Yorker from 1992 to 2006, and she freelanced for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, New York magazine and other publications.

She wrote several books, including “My Father’s Secret War: A Memoir” (2007), about her father’s hidden exploits as an American spy behind enemy lines in World War II, and “Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me” (2014), an account of her marriage to Mr. Morgenthau, which described in some detail how their differences in age, background and occupation had blossomed into romance.

As a journalist, Ms. Franks had a knack for zeroing in on some of the most buzzworthy topics of the day. In the mid-1990s she went behind the scenes at the O.J. Simpson murder trial for People magazine and interviewed lawyers for both sides. She wrote an article titled “The Intimate Hillary” for the inaugural issue of Talk magazine in 1999, in which Hillary Clinton discussed her “enormous pain, enormous anger” over President Bill Clinton’s infidelities.

Ms. Franks’s piece for The New Yorker about a sensational custody case in which a Michigan couple had given up their daughter for adoption and then sought to reclaim her was made into a television movie for ABC, “The War for Baby Jessica.” Ms. Franks collaborated on the screenplay.

In 1974 she wrote a front-page expose for The Times on red dye No. 2, an artificial food coloring found to be a potential cause of cancer and fetal death; her article led to the dye’s being banned from the nation’s food supply. Another influential piece, “A New Attack on Alcoholism,” which appeared in The Times Magazine in 1985, was among the first to debunk the myth that alcoholism reflected a failure of willpower as opposed to being a biochemical disease.

When Ms. Franks began her career, in the late 1960s, most women in the news business still had trouble getting serious assignments. Her first job with U.P.I., in London, was fetching coffee.

After digging up unusual feature articles for the news agency on her own time, she became the London bureau’s first female reporter — and was assigned to cover beauty pageants. To break out of that mold, she went on her own to Northern Ireland, where she found herself caught between warring factions of Roman Catholics and Protestants.

“With blood running down my face — from a minor scalp wound — I excitedly called U.P.I. London,” she wrote in “Timeless.”

“Civil war has broken out here, and I’ve got the story!” she shouted to her boss.

“Get out of there, Franks, and make it quick!” he responded. “Women aren’t allowed to cover war zones. U.P.I. rules.”

She told him that by the time they sent a man to replace her, the story would be over. “And that,” she wrote, “is how I got off beauty contests and spent the next several years dodging bullets in Northern Ireland.”

Her editors were so impressed with her work in London that they brought her to Manhattan in 1970 to work on another big story: Members of the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist organization, had accidentally blown up their bomb factory in a Greenwich Village townhouse, killing a 28-year-old member of the group, Diana Oughton.

ImageMs. Franks, as a reporter for United Press International in London, receiving congratulations on winning a share of the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. But some of her male colleagues snubbed her.
Ms. Franks, as a reporter for United Press International in London, receiving congratulations on winning a share of the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. But some of her male colleagues snubbed her. Credit…UPI

Ms. Franks embedded herself for several days with Ms. Oughton’s parents, poring over her letters and learning about her life. With the help of an assistant, Thomas Powers, Ms. Franks wrote a five-part series about Ms. Oughton, earning her the Pulitzer, which she shared with Mr. Powers. She was 24 and among the youngest recipients of a Pulitzer ever, in any category. (Mr. Powers went on to a successful career as a journalist and author.)

When the prizes were announced, Ms. Franks was back in London. She expected her colleagues, most of whom were men, to give her at least a pat on the back, but instead, by her account, they froze her out. Their reaction, she said years later in an interview with U.P.I., undermined her self-confidence and made her feel as if she hadn’t deserved to win.

In 2017, when the media was flooded with women’s stories of sexual harassment, Ms. Franks wrote an opinion essay for The Times in which she recalled her male colleagues’ snub over her Pulitzer.

“Grateful to win a place in the hierarchy of power,” she wrote, “we didn’t understand the ways that gender degradation still shaped our work lives.”

Lucinda Laura Franks was born on July 16, 1946, in Chicago. Her family soon moved to Wellesley, Mass. Her mother, Lorraine Lois (Leavitt) Franks, was involved in civic activities, including as president of the Wellesley Junior Service League. Her father, Thomas E. Franks, was vice president of a metals company.

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Ms. Franks’s 2007 memoir recounted how she belatedly discovered that her father had been an American spy operating behind enemy lines in World War II.

While growing up, Ms. Franks wrote, she found her parents’ marriage grim, and she left home as soon as possible. She went to Vassar, where she majored in English and steeped herself in the counterculture. After graduating in 1968, she left for London.

Her mother died in 1976, and Ms. Franks had little contact with her father. She later learned that he had been unfaithful to her mother, was a heavy drinker and over time had become nearly penniless. And only toward the end of his life (he died in 2002), while moving him out of his clut-tered house in Milford, Mass., did she discover, to her shock, boxes of Nazi paraphernalia and cryp-tic doc-u-ments. He had been a secret agent during World War II, she found — an experience, she would learn, that had tormented him.

As a former spy, he had been sworn to secrecy. But Alzheimer’s was eating away at his memory, and under his daughter’s relentless questioning, he revealed his secrets.

He had posed as a Nazi guard. He had slipped behind enemy lines to blow up ammunition dumps. He had been flown to Ohrdruf — a subcamp of Buchenwald and the first concentration camp liberated by the Allies — and reported on the atrocities that had been committed there. He had executed two men.

His heroism made Ms. Franks, after nearly a lifetime of estrangement, begin to see him in a more positive light. She went on to detail his revelations in “My Father’s Secret War.” Some reviewers found the book overheated but also “unflinching,” as Publishers Weekly wrote in a review noting that “the military history takes a back seat to the powerful family drama.”

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Ms. Franks and Mr. Morgenthau in 2014 at their home on Martha’s Vineyard. “They were polar opposites,” said Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a family friend.Credit…Katherine Taylor for The New York Times

Ms. Franks met Mr. Morgenthau in 1973, when U.P.I. sent her to interview him. At the time, she was harboring a draft-dodger wanted by the F.B.I.; he was on the cusp of an illustrious prosecutorial career that would inspire the long-running television series “Law & Order.”

They didn’t socialize until three years later, when he invited her to a fund-raising party for Jimmy Carter, who was running for president, attended by Jacqueline Onassis. They were still something of an odd couple, she with her radical politics and bohemian style, he with his button-down dynastic heritage and glittery social circle.

“They were polar opposites,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whom Mr. Morgenthau hired as an assistant district attorney in 1979 and who became a family friend, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “She was used to asking questions and being gregarious and outgoing, and he was the opposite of all those things. Bob Morgenthau was the most non-talkative human you will ever meet.”

But “she drew him out, and they talked constantly,” Justice Sotomayor added. “These two managed to make a life for themselves that was meaningful and very giving to others. They were a partnership. They are one of the first definitions I have in my life of a power couple.”

After they were married in 1977, Ms. Franks continued to use her own name professionally but referred to herself as Mrs. Morgenthau.

The couple had two children, Joshua Franks Morgenthau and Amy Elinor Morgenthau, both of whom survive her. She is also survived by her sister, Barbara Penelope Franks-Hribar; four of Mr. Morgenthau’s children from his first marriage, Jenny Morgenthau, Anne Morgenthau Grand, Robert P. Morgenthau and Barbara Morgenthau Lee; and their six children and three grandchildren. (Mr. Morgenthau’s first wife, Martha Pattridge, died in 1972.)

When Ms. Franks was first interviewing Mr. Morgenthau in 1973, he had been forced out as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York by President Richard M. Nixon’s administration, which had always been suspicious of him. With the Watergate scandal closing in, Ms. Franks asked him about Nixon’s fund-raising activities and drilled down on the names of Nixon’s associates.

“She made me spell out all these names, and I said, this is the dumbest reporter or the smartest,” Mr. Morgenthau told The Poughkeepsie Journal in 2015. “After I read the story, I said she was the smartest.”

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